The rage of convicts and breaking the cycle of anger

The inner rage

The message from the criminologist who knows my case was reassuring. I like him a lot. He told me he admires my restraint, how I’ve not lashed out, “I wouldn’t have been so calm.” But what can you do?

I didn’t reply directly, but pondered… If only he knew. But he doesn’t really. Just above my stomach, at the base of my lungs there’s a constant pressure, as if I’ve thrown myself on to a nuclear bomb to absorb the eruption.

It’s like John Hurt in Alien. I don’t want this alien thing to stay in, I don’t want it to come out. If it comes out, you’re dead, you’ve lost. But if it stays in, who knows.

The pressure is always there. It’s a constant struggle, every day, all day not to let it out, not to let the rage inside me explode. Night-time and mornings are worst. God forbid I dream. That’s what intoxicants are there to repress. As consciousness emerges from the mist of the dream state, reality seeps back in and the frustration sets in. Push it down, divert.

“You were such a happy-go-lucky fella,” “this isn’t you,” “I miss your smile”… Having one’s self ripped away crushes the soul. I mutter and sometimes sneer, “all very fucking well for you mate.”

Humiliation and the humility of others

It takes a lot of energy to fend off the rage inside. People from my past get in touch “hey, I hope you’re okay?” I never reply immediately, because the alienation and ostracisation carried by conviction never makes me feel happy to hear from such people.

There were three people in sequence who got in touch with me recently, and those three people I told in no uncertain terms “fuck you, you piece of shit, shame on you, you hypocritical wanker.”

Fortunately each gave way, understanding why I’d respond like that, and with humility each apologised and explained, “I got caught up in the moment, I couldn’t get hold of you, you just disappeared.” I send them the case and the friendship is intensified.

There’s always someone worse off

Inside every person with conviction there’s a box where they put things. It might be the frustration of a wrongful conviction, the lack of recognition of causation, the sense of victimhood of circumstance, prior alienation or the sense of over-punishment.

There’s an overwhelming sense that in each person convicted, there’s little or nothing to help change. The muted cry for help is almost always met with a continuation of the social punishment that led to the crime in the first place. Ruination continues to ruin ruined people. The response is so obvious it hurts.

For my part, when the fury arises, I write, I turn to the film. I tell myself negativity won’t help. I remind myself of the principle of forgiveness: they know not what they do.

Then I’m sobered by turning my thoughts to others, those who don’t have the quiet support of good people who know. I shed a tear for those who are worse off, for there are always some who are worse off.

A sobering meeting

At one of the screenings of Injustice I had the privilege of meeting a great man. Michael O’Brien was wrongly convicted of murder. When he went in he couldn’t read or write, but somehow, perhaps motivated by that sense of being cornered and having only two ways out – suicide or fight – he taught himself to read and write, learned law, defeated the Ministry of Justice in court and then won his freedom.

Yet as any convict knows, freedom never really comes.

The scars of injustice never heal. The torment never ends. Michael lost his daughter while in prison. He wasn’t able to hold her in her last moments. I cannot imagine how that feels every day. I don’t allow myself to ponder how that must be, how he must feel every waking moment.

At least for my part I did do something wrong, though certainly not what I was accused of – I carry my laptop everywhere I go so if I do meet someone from my past, I get it out, show them the evidence an pretty conclusively demonstrate that it didn’t happen.

But in the main, I don’t bother. I’m someone else now. I shut myself off. I move away from people. I don’t let them in. You lose that capacity to care what people think. To do so is to be taunted by the dark side of human being.

One is forced not to care. I used to be a very nice person and really helpful. Indeed my probation meetings were mainly made up of the probation officer asking me if I’m looking after myself and not caring about others. It was depressing when she praised me: “a beggar asked me for change, I told him to fuck off”, I told her at the start of one meeting. “Good, well done” was her reply.

The consequences of ostracisation

It seems every aspect of the criminal justice system is orientated to alienating and ostracising the convict. Our very dark, sanctimonious culture reinforces that sense. As Eoin Mclellan Murray says in Injustice, it could happen to you. But by then it’s too late.

cycle of rage
Max Hood’s brilliant depiction of the cycle of rage

Yet the point of causation is that ostracisation predates conviction for most with convictions. Economic marginalisation, mental health problems, childhood traumas, substance abuse, homelessness, all feed the system.

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my own childhood. I grew up with petty crime and violence all around. I was quite nice, despite my naughtiness. But others were angry and uncaring. I sometimes wondered why, but arrived at the notion that they felt apart, ostracised. It really is difficult to care about others when nobody cares about you.

You might see those with hoodies, caps over their eyes, looking down, sometimes up. They are often quite nervous people. Some are tough, yet that toughness often masks the inner vulnerability that accompanies marginalisation.

The “hoodie” and the “chav” don’t make their own conditions of existence. They are, like the convict, placed there and left. “Polite society” is just a class position. It is easy to be polite, kind and engaging in a life that does you well. Politeness is a celebration of fitting in.

There is no celebration in an existence that is miserable. Polite society means nothing for those to whom society is impolite. I remember my best mate in my teenage years used to throw his rubbish everywhere. I thought it wrong, but I never said anything. I understood him. Society didn’t care about him and his community, so why should he care about society. The language of polite society was foreign.

So why would any rational, sensible person believe that the ostracisation generated would in any way improve or better those people and the communities in which they live? It is absurd.

The ghosts among us

Ostracisation and harm is, as David Scott explains in Injustice, the major function of prison, and we might say the justice system more fully. It’s not an enlightened system. It has hardly moved on from medieval times, and in some respects seems to have got worse.

When we listen to judges or ministers, it seems their policies are motivated by fear. Not fear of crime but fear of the base human instincts that simmer under the service of polite society.

Polite society can laugh at the working class mobs mistakenly hunting down paediatricians, it can sniff at racist white lynch mobs, yet polite society is no better, it just has different scapegoats and folk devils. The banality of evil is there, always. It seems the justice system recognises this and gets to the accused before the lynch mob can. It carries out the harm they’d like to inflict on their behalf.

Yet this basic desire to harm is counter-productive of course. It often leads, according to Scott, to the “condemning of the condemners.”

Though I didn’t go in, the concept struck a chord. I would give anything to sit in a room with those who judged me and say to them, now you must know you were wrong, now you must know they were lying. Do you want to apologise you gullible fucking arseholes?

It won’t happen, of course. So the anger and fear is carried daily. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that conviction categorises one as sub-human. I tend to refer to us in and around the criminal justice system and prison world as ghosts.

O’Brien, I imagine, is haunted constantly. Marcus and Karolina float around the country as unknown spirits, her husband doesn’t really exist as himself. Others still lack the ability to speak out. They are avatars on Twitter, ghost writers. They are spectres who tell tales of the underworld.

Motivation and identity

People wonder why loved ones stick by convicts. I admire Karolina for going through hell for her husband. Hers is a simple explanation: “everyone makes mistakes.” For my part, as an atheist, I’ve come to appreciate Christians: He who is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her. Imagine that, the lynch mobs reflecting on themselves before screaming for blood!

But the justice system doesn’t allow that. Conviction sweeps everything away in a tsunami of righteousness. My heart was brought back to life with Faith Spear’s words in her Injustice interview: prison doesn’t contain bad people it contains people who have done bad things. It takes a very brave person to suggest such a thing.

Faith’s insight is bolstered by Penelope Gibbs’s critique of public perceptions. In her research for Transform Justice she’s found that most people think crimes are rational calculations. Some are, but most aren’t. “Criminal” acts are not exempt from the law of causation, yet a conviction is based on pure individual choice.

It is surreal that even educated minds are so child-like that they fail to distinguish the simplicity of fiction from the complexity of reality. As Charlotte Henry explains in Injustice, circumstantial evidence will be arranged to fit with prejudice, and always there are social interests to rage against this or that aspect.

You can be the best person in the world, but when that word, “guilty” is spoken and publicised, whole lifetimes of knowledge and experience melt away. Some are self-interested, not wanting to be tainted through association. Others may be simply hypocritical and incoherent. More still are just scared and confused. Either way, conviction and the added extras assumed and fabricated by special interests fed into media narratives condemn the convict who is almost always gagged.

Calming the anger

It’s difficult to describe the pantomime that is court. I remember asking my lawyer again and again “isn’t that perjury?” “It doesn’t work like that,” came her reply. “But can’t we show them this? That way they’ll know it’s a lie?” “They wouldn’t let that in, they’re not interested.”

It’s one of those things that frustrates me. Having been through the court system, I can’t read a single crime story now and believe it. It hurts me not to be able to empathise with victims of crime. I don’t like that feeling.

To have reality swept away, to have one’s identity fictionalised. To be turned into a monstrous criminal is the lot of so many.

So why bother? Why not just accept the new identity and become it.

For me part, I shook, I vomited, I cried, I starved myself, I drank and drank and drank, I took copious amounts of drugs, I chain smoked. “Don’t let it define you” is the stock response from those who don’t know. It is not a choice a convict is privileged enough to have.

It takes a long, long time to sink in. This is it. This is me. I won’t get away. I can’t get back what I lost. And so I made a decision – all that rage, all that anger, all that frustration is to be channelled into positive acts.

I chose to take the experience and live it, embrace it, and use it. I find it very difficult to be around people without convictions now. There’s something pure about the person with conviction. They know. They understand. They’ve been force-fed the red pill. For this reason I’m almost… Almost grateful for my ruination.

I’ve met the best people around as a consequence of my conviction. I’ve had an insight into how dark, vile and hypocritical “polite society” can be, and how those who are “bad” can be better than the best of polite society.

I marvel at people who have come through the system and can still smile. I admire them more than anyone. Michael O’Brien wrote to me that we are the survivors, to steal the “victim” narrative. I nodded at my computer and thought, yeah, I’ve come through it, but you mate, you’re something else.

And as I look around I see people like Gethin Jones, Ben Sturge and Michael O’Brien who’ve travelled paths that make them stronger and better than anyone in polite society. I’ve met families of prisoners such as Marcus and Karolina, Sally Halsall and Charlotte Henry whose strength crushes me. And people such as Faith Spear and Penelope Gibbs who have dedicated their lives to correcting injustice with nothing in it for them.

It is this support, this solidarity that is so crucial to the project of Injustice. To fight against marginalisation by creating supportive relationships and networks is the best way to actually deal with the issues.

My anger rises up again when I consider the moment we’re living in. Lynch mobs are everywhere, hell-bent on destroying even innocent lives if it suits as political purpose, as recently admitted in Emily Lindin’s vile tweet. Her rationale seems to be the lives of some complainants are damaged, so the lives of innocent people should be ruined. That such an attitude would merely deepen the problem fails to connect with such a privileged person.

It’s most painful to have to tell adults something that my children have understood for years – “to respond to upset and hurt with upset and hurt creates more upset and hurt… Is it good to have more upset and hurt?” “No.” “Do you like to be upset and hurt?” “No.” “Then what should you do?” “Say sorry and talk about how we can stop it happening again?”

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